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Perestroika and the Party: Gorbachev's Daunting Task

July 17, 1988|Roy Medvedev | Roy Medvedev is a Soviet historian whose works, including "All Stalin's Men" and "Khrushchev" (Doubleday), have been published in the West.

MOSCOW — Last spring, perestroika, the Soviet Union's restructuring, encountered mounting difficulties. Fundamental economic reform was not making any headway; ethnic conflicts were fast becoming aggravated. The economic situation for the masses was worsening. The press was publishing sharply critical reports, but even the policy of glasnost was meeting increasing resistance. People began to say, "It's more interesting to read in the Soviet Union than to live in it." Finally, the declared unity of Soviet society evaporated, as the polemics between two newspapers, Soviet Russia and Pravda, showed.

All those circumstances were reflected in choosing the 5,000 delegates for the Communist Party conference last month. For the first time in many decades, the delegate elections were marked by sharp political struggle and involved actual platforms. The conference received not only many thousands of the traditional complaints, but also thousands of concrete proposals. In a word, expectations were high.

Have they been vindicated? Yes, in part. The conference conducted big, important and interesting work. If, during the years of stagnation, people almost stopped reading papers during party congresses, they now formed long lines at newsstands.

Undeniably, the conference's most important document was General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev's opening report. It was a fundamental document that set out in very condensed form (there was no space for examples and explanations) many suggestions and policies that went much further than anything that Gorbachev himself had said or written before.

Each reader can find in the report grounds for satisfaction or concern--depending on his position and profession. The proposal on price reform, for instance, would bring anxiety to many; Gorbachev's insistence on radical reduction of the party apparatus and liquidation of its economic branches would have a mixed reception in other quarters. I was personally satisfied by Gorbachev's declaration on the need to reconsider the traditionalist views in the party on the events of the '30s and '70s. Healthy self-criticism in the party is not denigration, but a long-overdue process of cleansing.

However, Gorbachev's report also contained parts it was difficult to agree with, as well as parts that remained unclear.

We all see shifts in the economy, the changes in the system of priorities, the cancellation of obsolete projects and instructions. Many experiments are under way, the cooperative movement gathers momentum, individual enterprise develops. Private farming is winning acceptance in the countryside, while urban dwellers manage a growing number of vegetable plots and even have opportunities to buy houses in villages and cultivate adjoining plots. Previous limits on individual crafts are being removed, and at the same time big agricultural conglomerates are being encouraged.

But all these new forms of economic activity embrace not more than 10% of the national economy so far, while the remaining 90% still operates in the old fashion and produces low-quality commodities. We now have a clearer idea of the reasons behind this economic stagnation but we still lack a comprehensive, well-thought-out program of economic development.

In the last three years, Soviet national income grew very slowly, and acceleration in the economy still remains a slogan. Gorbachev talked about real wages growing by 4.6% in two years, but now one can say with confidence that, for the majority of workers and civil servants, take-home income has slumped.

The country sustained colossal damage because of the Chernobyl catastrophe. The foreign trade turnover shrank in the last two years by 10%, and if a Soviet woman must now buy two pairs of bad Soviet shoes instead of one good Italian pair, she would in no way feel that her real income has increased. A huge amount of money is siphoned off by moonshiners, retail trade lags behind its targets and, while nominal wages have grown in the country, pay-outs are frequently postponed in many cities. Affordable goods are disappearing from stores and there are nationwide shortages of not just meat and milk but even sugar.

One of the conference's major decisions concerned the separation of the party and administrative functions and boosting the power of the local soviets, or governing and administrative councils, in their territories. Yet many delegates found it hard to understand how the system would function in provinces, cities and districts where, in accordance with Gorbachev's proposal, the local party's first secretary would head the renovated soviet. It seemed that, for the first time in 65 years, some delegates to a party conference openly objected to the party leader's proposals; he, in turn, attempted to answer them calmly.

The conference polemics revealed both divergent opinions on certain problems and distinct currents inside the party. To simplify somewhat, there are three different political groups in the party:

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